The scene is a familiar one. Some TV "reporter" asks a famous athlete a question. This time, it's about groupies, not every athlete's favorite discussion topic. Predictably, the famous athlete gets angry, and his answer is laced with profanities that will turn into bleeps on the 11 o'clock news.
That's important, because the bleeps give sportscasters the opportunity to snicker on the air. And who doesn't enjoy a good snicker?
But, since the athlete is Charles Barkley, it doesn't end there.
When Barkley, the sports world's greatest provocateur, walks away from the camera, he says to a friend, "That's why I hate white people."
Barkley, of course, is black.
ESPN runs the interview, and you'd think it was Huey Newton calling for revolution. It taps into every white person's worst fear: They really do hate us.
You're shocked, right?
Don't worry. It was a joke. I promise. If you know anything about Charles Barkley (for the sports challenged: the best basketball player since Michael Jordan), you know he was kidding when he said he didn't like white people. He made the offending comment to a white person.
Maybe it wasn't a good joke. But what's funny -- really funny -- is the reaction.
As if this were some big deal. As if this weren't simply Barkley being Barkley, an entertainer, for God's sake. He can't resist saying something outrageous. Think of Howard Stern in short pants.
Barkley says stuff to get a reaction. That's when he actually thinks about what he says, which is only occasionally.
But it's not so important whether or not you like Barkley. The semi-important question that's raised here is whether in our politically charged, oh-so-careful world, it is possible to joke about race. Or about anything.
The answer, I believe, is no.
For example, here's my favorite feminist joke.
Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb.
A. That's not funny.
Can I say that?
How about this scene from a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Eddie Murphy plays a reggae singer? Sing along: "Kill all the white people, but buy my record first."
Can he say that?
Here's what you can't say. There are some distinctions here. House Majority Leader Dick Armey can't say Barney Fag, because it isn't a joke. It's what people like Dick Armey would call fag-baiting.
And it isn't the same either when the Rutgers president talks about "genetic hereditary background." It isn't political correctness at work here. It's 19th-century science.
The world of professional basketball is not like the rest of the world. It's a frat house where whites and blacks mix in a state that approximates equality. This is funny, meaning odd. Certainly, it's an anomaly.
And the mostly white media involved in that world understand how it works. There are jokes, and they usually stay private. But sometimes, they don't.
Once, a player for the Los Angeles Lakers missed a dunk. After the game, he said, along the lines of white men can't jump, that he felt like a white guy out there. A writer used the line, thinking it was funny.
Tens of thousands of readers didn't laugh.
In the real world, we're not ready to laugh. The subject is too painful. The divisions are too real.
We don't trust each other.
Is Barkley a racist?
Well, his wife is white. His best friend among his Phoenix Suns teammates is white. But he wouldn't have to use the some-of-my-best-friends-are-white or even the some-of-my-best-wives-are-white defense. This is a guy who once considered running for governor of Alabama -- as a Republican.
He's good buddies with -- hold your ears -- Rush Limbaugh, another master of outrage.
Not that it matters. Some damage has been done. And Barkley has learned a lesson about what is and isn't permissible to say, at least in public.
That's because he doesn't have a good answer to the question of what would have happened if a white athlete had said, even in jest, that he hated black people.
There would have been a major furor.
No one would have laughed.
Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever.